Dying for the Right to Choose

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During election season there was a lot of debate over exceptions to the pro-life position -- rape and life of the mother being the large ones. Joe Walsh, for instance, offered the following:

Walsh said he was against abortion "without exception," including rape, incest and in cases in which the life or health of the mother was in jeopardy.

Asked by reporters after the debate if he was saying that it's never medically necessary to conduct an abortion to save the life of a mother, Walsh responded, "Absolutely."

"With modern technology and science, you can't find one instance," he said. "... There is no such exception as life of the mother, and as far as health of the mother, same thing."

Walsh is no longer in Congress. But when evaluating comments like this, I think it's important to avoid thinking about women in the abstract, and confront the case of actual, individual women and their lived experience. Here is the experience of Savita Halappanavar, a woman who offers actual testimony to what Joe Walsh's America might look like:

Dr. Halappanavar was informed by senior hospital physicians that she was having a miscarriage and that her fetus had no chance of survival. However, despite repeated pleas for an abortion, she was told that it would be illegal while the fetus's heart was still beating, her husband, Praveen Halappanavar, said.

It was not until Oct. 24 that the heartbeat ceased and the remains of the fetus were surgically removed. But Dr. Halappanavar contracted a bacterial blood disease, septicemia. She was admitted to intensive care but never recovered, dying on Oct. 28.

Mr. Halappanavar, in an interview with The Irish Times from his home in India, said his wife was told after one request, "This is a Catholic country."

Mr. Halappanavar told the newspaper that he still could not believe his wife was dead. "I was with her those four days in intensive care," he said. "They kept telling me: 'She's young. She'll get over it.' But things never changed; they only got worse. She was so full of life. She loved kids.

"It was all in their hands, and they just let her go. How can you let a young woman go to save a baby who will die anyway?"

Jessica Valenti fumes at the implications:

American women would do well not to dismiss this as a tragedy that could only happen in another country. This is what happens when you legislate something as personal and complicated as pregnancy. How do doctors decide when a woman is close enough to dying to give her an abortion? Or to what degree does a woman's health need to be at risk?

I would submit that if you believe abortion to be murder, you don't decide at all. There is a chilling intellectual consistency in the behavior of Halappanavar's doctors, and pro-life activists who we dismiss as "extremists." Either abortion is murder, or it isn't. If you believe the former then Halappanavar's doctors were quite correct -- they refused to murder a baby to save its mother.

Walsh was lying in his refusal to admit that women actually do die during the work of pregnancy. But his position -- "without exceptions" -- strikes me as the honest one. The problem here isn't packaging. There is no way to honestly modify its import. Either you believe that women who have sex should run the risk of being remanded to potentially lethal labor, or you don't. No exceptions.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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